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Auditor finds fire department employee misused resources for family business

Wednesday, May 22, 2019 by Chad Swiatecki

An investigation by the city auditor’s office found evidence that an Austin Fire Department employee misused city computer equipment and his city email account to conduct business for a company owned by his wife.

In a report released Tuesday, the auditor’s office said that Brian Kline, who worked as an equipment technician for the fire department, had conducted business with the same vendors he interacted with in his city position.

Kline’s family business provides emergency vehicle outfitting as well as alterations and accessories related to “overlanding,” a recreational activity that involves off-roading and camping. The city investigation found at least some overlap with his full-time position that required him to plan and schedule maintenance and repair of city equipment.

An allegation made against Kline targets activity from April 2018, though the investigation found that his email and web browsing activity on city computer equipment going back to 2014 suggest he was taking action related to the family business while working for the fire department.

Investigators also found an email thread spanning multiple years between Kline and a city vendor that included him making purchases for his family business along with conducting city business.

The investigation didn’t find evidence that Kline provided any special treatment to city vendors with whom he also conducted personal business. The report said there was so much overlap between his city position and his second job with the family business, that investigators were unable to quantify the exact extent to which he’d used city time and resources for his own benefit.

Emails were also found where Kline communicated with a representative of a city vendor’s municipal sales group regarding purchases for his family business. His web viewing traffic over 12 months in 2017 and 2018 included 6,500 visits to sites related to online auctions, social media, off-road vehicles and an online gun dealer, none of which appeared to be related to his city work.

According to data gathered by The Texas Tribune, Kline has worked for the city since 2002 and as of last year was earning just over $56,000 per year.

In a written response to the report, Kline said personal web browsing is a common activity among city employees while working, and “I find this to be absolutely ridiculous that the audit office is even using this as one of their Findings.’”

He also said the family business was started so he could earn extra money after being turned down for promotions within the fire department.

“I started my business on the mere fact that I was simply trying to make ends meet. In regards to my current employer I’ve asked for several years to possibly get a promotion, new job description, even overtime in which I’ve been denied for years. I’ve tried every approach or angle to find some sort of supplemental income within my job and absolutely nothing happened and raising two small kids, trying to support my family the city of Austin left me with no choice to look outside the department, and that’s why our company started.”

In early April, Kline submitted his letter of resignation to the department with an effective date of May 31.

In response to the findings, Austin Fire Chief Joel Baker wrote that while it was unclear whether Kline violated any conflict-of-interest rules, “it is troubling to suspect Mr. Kline conducted city business under circumstances that would constitute a conflict of interest. AFD has a handful of civilian employees who work in remote locations with minimal supervision. Brian Kline is generally viewed as a good employee, however, he is working in an autonomous job assignment. In response to the investigation findings, AFD will review the working conditions and supervision of employees in similar situations.”

Photo by J.Köster (Own work) [CC BY 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons.

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